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October 20, 1989 - Image 56

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-10-20

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nce you save a life,
you're responsible for
it," said Irene Op-
dyke, a Righteous Gentile
who, having saved hundreds
of lives during the Holocaust,
has dedicated her life to
"I want to remind the world
that we are all one family,"
said Opdyke "I want to pre-
vent another disaster:'
Opdyke spoke at the Jewish
Welfare Federation Buiness
and Professional Women's ad-
vance gifts meeting and
Women's Division Lion of
Judah luncheon this month.
Opdyke, who will accept a
speaking engagement only if
she is given the opportunity
to meet with young people,
also addressed students at
Ferndale and West Bloom-
field high schools.
"Today's children are the
last genertion to hear eye-
witness accounts of the
Holocaust, and they must
hear it," said Opdyke. "It's
not like hearing a lecture or
reading it in a history book.
I speak to them like a grand-
mother, from my heart."
She has stacks of letters
from the students she has
"Dear Mrs. Opdyke," wrote
one young girl. "I didn't know
much about the Holocaust,
but when you came to speak
to us, I could feel it. I could
see it?'
For saving hundreds of
Jewish lives, Opdyke receiv-
ed the Medal of Honor from
Yad Vashem, Israel's highest
"In 1939, I was a teenager
caught in the horrors of war,"
said Opdyke. "When Russia
invaded Poland, I was taken
from my country. Months
later, during a citizen ex-
change between the two coun-
tries, I was sent back to my
homeland — only then it was
under German rule.
"I was forced to work in a
chemical factory. The fumes
were strong and unbearable,
and I was weak and tired.
One afternon, I fainted right
at the feet of a German
general. Since I was blond
haired and blue eyed and
speaking a fluent German,
the general did not realize I
was Polish. He let me leave
the factory and hired me.


Cipora Cohen is a public
relations associate at the
Jewish Welfare Federation.

Irene Opdyke

"The head of the Gestapo
often ate at the general's
house. One evening I
overheard him say, 'Don't ex-
pect the Jews to come to work
the day after tomorrow?
"I had become good friends
with the 12 Jews who work-
ed with me in the laundry
room. I even learned Yiddish.
They were professionals, doc-
tors and lawyers. I knew I had
to help them and the others. •
"I told them what I heard,
and they warned the other
Jews. Many escaped from the
ghetto just in time. My
friends asked for my help, and
I decided t take the risk and
hide them in the general's
"During those years, I was
always on guard. Many times
I had to move the 12 of them
from the cellar to the attic
and back depending on where
the general was and who else
was in the house" Opdyke
also made the decision that a
woman who became pregnant
could keep the baby, despite
the danger presented by a
crying baby.
One day the general walk-
ed into the room where the
Jews were ' hiding. The
general agreed to let them
stay if Opdyke gave herself to
him. She was 19.
Opdyke came to America in
1949. She married and had a
"Right after the war, I only
wanted to forget," said Op-
dyke. "But when I read a
newspaper article question-
ing that the Holocaust occur-
red, I knew I had to speak
Recently, Opdyke received a
letter from Israel addressed to
"Dear Mother." The writer
said his life began in a Ger-
man general's villa. He was
the baby she had protected.
Opdyke was present at the
bar mitzvah of his son. ❑

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